Lithuania-Poland-Russia ENPI Cross-border Co-operation Programme 2007-2013
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Expedition of three, including common experience

To be more precise – expedition of 35. That is how many artists and critics from Gdansk, Kaliningrad, Klaipėda, as well as a few fellow onlookers from elsewhere started an exploratory expedition of the project “Close stranger” on the 11th July through the aforementioned cities with the aim to learn more about them, about each other, and, at the same time, about themselves.

Participants of the trip, who travelled en route Gdansk – Kaliningrad – Klaipėda, met at the final destination admitted that it was difficult to summarize often unexpected and highly concentrated impressions of the twelve days. However, in this case, reflection is a necessary part of not only the trip itself but also of the project “Close Stranger: promoting mutual understanding between population of Gdansk, Kaliningrad and Klaipėda through facilitation of exchange in the field of contemporary arts and culture” that started this year and will run until the end of 2014. Because on the top of everything else, the programme implemented by the Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (Kaliningrad, Russia) together with KCCC and the Centre for Contemporary Art Łaznia (Poland), also includes plans to prepare a travel guide of unusual format where dull “official” city hotspots will be replaced by much more lively, relevant and attractive objects, people, and events.

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Good practice from Kaliningrad

Unconventional travel guide – an idea of the Baltic Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, at first implemented in this city in 2005. According to the Head of the branch Elena Tsvetaeva, up until 1992 Kaliningrad was a closed territory, moreover – there were no travel guides or albums of the city, and the pre-Soviet period of Kaliningrad history was not a subject of public discussion at all.

“In 2003 we thought of this guide made in untypical form, and, after two years, on the occasion of the City’s 750 year anniversary, we implemented the idea. To my opinion, the Art Guide (rus. арт-гид.) project represent the result of a decade’s work of our branch. During this time Kaliningrad was visited by numerous artists; they engaged in creative work there, but would take their concepts with them when leaving the city. We were interested in recapturing their effort, a new look at the city that inspired them.”, – said E. Tsvetaeva.

The guide presents different objects of interest than the usual tourist guides do: interesting people, animals, trees, myths, unique objects that are every day passed unnoticed by people, however, when directed towards them, people suddenly start noticing and recognizing their uniqueness.

A large team was assembled to prepare the guide: 82 artists, art critics, journalists, sound artists, even children became co-authors of the book. Even though the book was published in symbolic edition – 500 copies in each Russian and English, the guide is still accessible in e-book form.

“Nowadays there are plenty different books about cities. However, there is still a demand to see them in different light”, – stressed E. Tsvetaeva, who is eagerly preparing for the creative works related with the new guide.

Three or one?

According to E. Tsvetaeva, the participants of the exploratory trip are expected to present their written material to the organizers by October. Each party to the project will have its team of editors and curators, will create the design of their guide, and organize the contents from the general “text bank”, picking the most interesting texts, new travel route suggestions, etc. at its own discretion.

However, one of the participants of the exhibition, Polish artist and curator Giedymin Jablonski, who has long-time professional relations with Lithuania due to teaching at Vilnius Academy of Art Telšiai Department – has doubts about issuing 3 different versions of the guide.

“I like the idea, but I am not sure about the form. It seems that it would be more appropriate to issue one book. Issuing three different publications contradicts with the idea of integration”, he points out. “And we have plenty reasons to be good neighbours. I hope that the upcoming guide would be able to open the panoramic picture of neighbourhood to young people.”

Searching and doubting, according to KCCC director Ignas Kazakevičius, is natural in this situation. „35 creative minds in one trip is already a sort of challenge, especially since the aim of the project is different than usual to the organizing institutions and the participants. Observing the process, I think that it is much easier to organize an exhibition – everything is quite clear about it, we can even more or less anticipate reaction of the audience. But here – it is absolutely open field for creative ideas and pursuits”, – shared his thoughts the art critic.

Expands vision

The organizers of the project emphasize the necessity to look at the Lithuanian-Polish border areas and the Kaliningrad region as a single region. However, the position of insightful intellectuals is at variance with everyday experience. Although, geographically Klaipėda, Kaliningrad, and Gdansk are located almost in the same distance from one another, border crossing regime and related bureaucratic procedures, limited travel options separate the cities much more than it may seem at the first glance.

“I suppose that one of the key conclusions that we made today in Klaipėda is the fact that Kaliningrad is the least familiar city to other participants of the project. Although it turned out that being in the middle, we know quite a lot about the Curonian Lagoon, Nida, Gdansk, but we ourselves are like a dead zone to our neighbours. That is understandable – it is much easier to buy a cheap airline ticket to London or Dublin, instead of going to the Russian consulate to fill in the documents in order to obtain a visa… On the top of that, we are slaves to stereotypes,” – noted Ana Karpenko, sociologist from Kaliningrad and participant of the expedition. “Thus, if due to our efforts other members of the expedition were able to change their opinion about Russia, to expand them, it is great!”

On the other hand, although two of the participating countries belong to the European Union, relations between Klaipeda and Gdansk have so far been symbolic. Neighbouring countries – not the most popular destination of holiday and sightseeing, especially when Klaipėda and Gdansk have no convenient transport links: they are connected neither by sea transport, nor by bus routes.

So far, contacts in cultural cooperation have also been episodic. The Centre for Contemporary Art Łaznia curator Agniezska Wołodźko said that cooperation with Kaliningrad is the usual practice of the centre, while Lithuania is a new partner in this regard. “After the restoration of independence all former contacts ceased, everybody was looking at the West, not at the neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, we have a common communism experience – no matter how it may sound, it makes us close to one another. And it considerably facilitates building-up of a new community “- thinks the curator.

” I visited both Kaliningrad and Gdansk for the first time during this trip. Yes, I had prejudices, some of which have proved right, and some wrong. The biggest advantage I would call a live communication with participants from elsewhere. It adds another dimension to the usual trip of sightseeing and listening to the stories of guides. Thus, I would not be quick to summarize – I will rather take pleasure in thinking over my impressions and experiences” – said poet Mindaugas Valiukas from Klaipėda, one of the participants in the expedition.

Right time in right place

Members of the expedition from farther countries had the opportunity to look at their new experience from the wider angle… After the trip, Herwig Höller – Austrian journalist and critic speaking excellent Russian – was regretting that similar projects were not organized in his country or surrounding regions.

“It makes sense only during a transitional period, which you are just experiencing”, – thinks H. Höller. “Europe has a very few regions where consequences of historical events, including terrible happenings of the 20th century, were so visible. The fact that people are trying to overcome them, is commendable, and their attempts to embrace the cultural and historical phenomena of this area are of ​​great interest to me. I noticed very important moments related to the border crossing regime – when it becomes less strict, it is a great help to normalize relations; I had many experiences revealing how due to the different socio-cultural experience and context we perceive the same things differently.

Ivan Chechot, art critic from St. Petersburg, who participated in making of the aforementioned art guide to Kaliningrad, named communication as the most prominent impression from the expedition. “It started uneasily; as the trip is coming to an end there are still some constraints. However, I think that not everything needs to be polished – some roughness has to remain, because if we all were the same it would be simply boring.” – says I. Chechot. “Communication reveals different character, things that almost cannot be expressed by any language, and different meanings that people from different cities give to familiar things. And that is very fascinating.“

VALERIJA LEBEDEVA